Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which won the Orange Prize (now renamed the women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2012, gave us her version of the Iliad. Now, with Circe, Miller retells the story of the Odyssey, but once again pulls focus to an alternate point of view, a feminist perspective not before explored: that of Circe, the witch of Aiaia, whom Odysseus encounters on his travels. Told entirely in Circe’s voice, the novel is a sensitive and entertaining exploration of femininity, feminism, divinity and motherhood.

Miller’s story starts the way every good Greek epic does — at the very beginning, with Circe’s birth. The daughter of the sun god Helios, Circe is a nymph like the dozens of others who are to be found in Helios’s palace: “We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away.” But Circe is declared to be less beautiful and interesting than her siblings and mostly left to fend for herself.

When she falls in love with a mortal fisherman, she finds herself desperate to hold on to the one person who has appreciated her and uses pharmakeia — “herbs with the power to work changes upon the world, both those that spring from the blood of gods, as well as those which grow common upon the earth” — to turn him into a god so she may have him for eternity. However, once he becomes a blue-grey barnacle-covered sea god, he loses all his human humility and chooses a beautiful nymph instead of Circe.

Retelling a Greek classic from the viewpoint of a peripheral character is an exploration of femininity, feminism, divinity and motherhood

In her jealousy and anger, Circe channels powers she wasn’t aware of as yet to transform Scylla the nymph into a hideous, dangerous monster. For this show of power and for the burgeoning sorcery she exhibits, Helios and Zeus exile Circe to the uninhabited island of Aiaia. It was in the skies above this island that Helios vanquished a Titan and “drenched the land with blood”, and because the blood of the Titans has soaked into every part of the island, this provides Circe powerful tools with which to hone her craft.

Once she has understood how to harness her power, she starts with little things — turning an acorn into a strawberry, banishing flies from her home, making cherries blossom — “because I knew nothing, nothing was beneath me.” Transformation is her strength, but not her limitation. She summons a wild lion to be her familiar — the animal-shaped spirit that serves a witch. After one horrific incident, she changes any sailors who come across her into pigs before they can act out their violence. She finds her true calling, comes alive for the first time and in that discovers how to be at ease with herself too: “I was drunk, as the wine and nectar in my father’s halls had never made me. No wonder I have been so slow, I thought. All this while I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea. Yet now look where I sail.”

Circe is immortal: she literally has all the time in the world to grow into whoever she wants to be. As the years go by, she takes on a number of lovers on her own terms — Hermes to start with, both partners accepting each other as “poison snakes.” As Miller tells us the story of Circe’s life, she weaves in many Greek myths with which readers will be familiar: the stories of Daedalus and Odysseus; the life of Circe’s sister Pasiphae who sends for Circe to help her birth the Minotaur; and the journey of Jason and Medea, who ask Circe for catharsis, or cleansing, for their brutal crimes.

Repeatedly told as a child that her voice is terrible, as an adult Circe learns from Hermes that this is because she sounds like a mortal, not a god. It is this mortal voice that Miller often focuses on, bringing to life a woman completely relatable in so many ways, be she immortal and divine. The Greek gods were known for their violence and their constantly warring ways and Circe’s reactions to those who hurt her or those who need her are no less reactionary, whether it be turning rapists into pigs or protecting the entire island from a threatening, powerful Olympian.

But she is also very much a woman like any other and this is also the story of a woman who spends a lonely life trying to understand just who and what she is, so that she may then be able to accept and enjoy herself. It is a story of womanhood, of growth and eventual maternity. As a mother, we see Circe the Titan — the great witch of Aiaia, the goddess with such powers that she can keep even Athena at bay — struggle the way any human mother would with a baby. When that baby grows into a young man, Circe must learn to let him face the world and all its dangers on his own even though she knows the world may break him.

Witchcraft is nothing but such drudgery. Each herb must be found in its den, harvested at its time, grubbed up from the first, culled and stripped, washed and prepared. It must be handled this way, then that, to find out where its power lies. Day upon patient day, you must throw out your errors and begin again. So why did I not mind? Why did none of us mind? — Excerpt from the book

Years after her relationship with Odysseus is over, Circe hears the story of their affair the way we have — a misogynistic take on what took place between them, with Circe succumbing to the hero’s sword and charm, rather than being his equal. “Humbling women seems to be a chief pastime of poets,” writes Miller in Circe’s voice, “as if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.” But Circe will not be such a woman, she will not allow for such a story to be told about her. With Circe, Miller has brought to light a character who deserved much more than the peripheral roles she played in traditional Greek mythology, and the author does so with a charm and poignancy that was evident in her earlier novel as well. Circe is a fully realised, vibrant story of a woman whose true understanding and acceptance of herself and her own agency make her a force that even the gods fear.

The reviewer is a book critic and editor of the Apex Book of World SF 4 and The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories. She also hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

Circe
By Madeline Miller
Little, Brown and Company, US
ISBN: 978-0316556347
400pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 12th, 2018

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